Depeche Mode review – who knew synth-pop could be this colossal and life-affirming?

<span>Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Depeche Mode have been thrilling stadiums for 35 years now. Immortalised in their classic tour movie 101, their first ever megashow, at the Pasadena Rosebowl, established rules of engagement which pertain to this day. You shall sing the Thatcher-baiting chorus of Everything Counts over and over while frontman Dave Gahan holds out his microphone. You shall follow Gahan’s cue to sway your arms from side to side during Never Let Me Down Again. Still, much has changed. The four young men from Essex who appeared on the cover of 101 like a synth-pop Beatles became first a trio and then, with the premature death of keyboardist Andrew Fletcher last year, a duo. While drummer Christian Eigner and multi-instrumentalist Peter Gordeno, both in the touring fold since 1998, carry the sonic weight, it is hard not seeing Fletcher waving amiably from behind his synthesiser.

Death has been a driving concern for songwriter Martin Gore since the mid-80s – alongside sex, sin and guilt – but its presence is more deeply felt in material from their sombre new album Memento Mori. The video for Ghosts Again, their best single in many years, shows the duo playing chess in homage to The Seventh Seal, while the show’s key visual motif is a skull. Fletcher’s subtly animated face fills the screens during World in My Eyes, providing a necessary moment of phone-waving communal remembrance in a stadium where diehards in old tour T-shirts mingle with a refreshing number of younger converts.

Mutual appreciation … Martin Gore and Gahan.
Mutual appreciation … Martin Gore and Gahan. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Most touchingly, Gahan and Gore seem to have rediscovered their appreciation for one another in their sixties. They don’t talk much (their defining hit, after all, is called Enjoy the Silence) but their body language speaks volumes. Note the way Gahan returns to the stage for the end of Gore’s solo performance of Soul With Me’s blue-eyed R&B to express his enthusiasm, or how tenderly their voices mesh on an intimate encore of Waiting for the Night to greet the darkening sky. Given their candidly documented history of distance, this dramatisation of their rapprochement is enormously touching.

Depeche Mode are weirdly prone to starting shows in first gear but once the video screens snap from black-and-white to colour for Everything Counts, they gallop through decades’ worth of hits with barely a detour. How they alone of their generation made synth-pop colossal still fascinates. The messianic techno-blues of Personal Jesus and I Feel You has obvious power but the monolithic mass of Never Let Me Down Again (recently heard in The Last of Us) or the Orwellian Stripped is still astounding: stadium rock without the rock. The pulsating glam-house of A Pain That I’m Used To is another sui generis highlight; Just Can’t Get Enough’s peppy teen bop a delightful outlier. Really though, their success on stage comes down to Gahan’s preposterous theatricality: louche, flouncy, Jaggerish. At first resembling a Vegas vampire before stripping down to a series of colourful waistcoats, he is a bum-waggling, mic-spinning, limb-bending, rabble-rousing marvel. In the midst of death, he explodes with life.